WASHINGTON (CN) - The victims and families of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa can begin collecting on judgments against Sudan and Iran in connection with the attacks, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
The bombings in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania killed 224 people and injured thousands more. In 2011, a federal judge ruled Iran and Sudan could be held liable for the attacks.
Victims and their families could receive $622 million as part of the judgments.
Part of the reason the plaintiffs can begin enforcing judgment was the court's reading of section 1610 of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which governs how plaintiffs can go about collecting upon property of a foreign nation against which they have obtained judgment.
The Seventh Circuit decided some plaintiffs seeking judgment against a state sponsor of terrorism under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act were not subject to section 1610(c) of the law, which holds that a "reasonable period of time" must pass before a court allows a plaintiff to enforce a judgment, according to the opinion.
Instead, plaintiffs in these types of cases can use what the Seventh Circuit saw as the less-restrictive section 1610(g) when attempting to enforce judgments against a foreign state, according to the opinion.
But U.S. District Judge John D. Bates for the District of Columbia disagreed with this reading. He determined 1610(g) was not a freestanding provision, but instead a special rule related to sections 1610(a) and 1610(b) of the act, which determines what types of property held by a foreign national plaintiffs can collect on.
"What plaintiff seeking to enforce a section 1605A judgment would invoke section 1610(a)(7), and thereby force himself to jump the procedural hurdles of section 1610(c), if he could instead invoke section 1610(g) and effortlessly stroll around them," Bates wrote. "And what legislature would draft such a statutory scheme?"
After determining that the plaintiffs in this case were subject to section 1610(c), Bates then turned to the "thornier question" of what constitutes a reasonable amount of time as required under the law.
Bates determined that the three months that have passed since the plaintiffs last delivered a notice to Sudan and Iran was sufficient to satisfy the requirements under section 1610(c).
"In the absence of any evidence that defendants are making efforts to pay these judgments voluntarily - and there is none here - the court is inclined to find three months a sufficient pause," Bates wrote.
Sudan disagreed, arguing a reasonable time had not passed because the statute requires a non-appealable judgment, not simply the judgment of a federal court.
Bates called this argument "ambitious," saying the statute clearly does not say "final" judgment, but rather simply "entry of judgment." Because of this, there "is no plausible hook" in the statute that backs up Sudan's theory, he said.
Sudan further argued comity - the reciprocal concept that a court will not demean another jurisdiction's laws - should force Bates to read the law as requiring final judgment, according to the opinion.
While Bates acknowledged a "lack of reciprocity may be unwise," he disagreed with Sudan's point, saying he would not "misread statutes" to comply with comity.
Finally, Sudan argued Bates should not rule that a reasonable time had elapsed, because there was still the chance he would grant Sudan's motions to vacate the judgments.
This is a separate matter, however, Bates ruled. If Sudan wanted to protect its assets from being seized in a judgment the court might soon vacate, it could file a motion to stay execution which the court could then grant, Bates wrote.
"Section 1610 speaks in terms of 'time,' not procedural milestones - neither (as discussed above) the point at which a judgment becomes non-appealably final, nor (as relevant here) the point at which postjudgment motions are denied," Bates wrote before granting plaintiff's motion.
The ruling doesn't mean the plaintiffs will immediately receive $622 million in Sudanese cash, however. John Vail, who represents the victims, said it would take years to scrounge up property the foreign countries own that his clients could collect on.
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